Is ‘Reef Safe’ Sunscreen A Big Scam?

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
What do you look for in a sunscreen? Perhaps it's a high factor to ensure you're protecting your skin for longer. Maybe it's a non-comedogenic label, which means the product is less likely to clog your pores. If you're a stickler for making environmentally friendly beauty choices, you might be searching for a sunscreen that's 'reef safe' — particularly if you're headed abroad this summer.
A handful of places like Hawaii, some national parks in Thailand and areas of the Caribbean and the US have banned (or are rethinking) certain sunscreens — specifically those containing ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene. These are all types of UV filters, which protect the skin from the sun. In recent years, some studies have concluded that these sunscreen ingredients bleach, and therefore damage or kill, coral reefs in the ocean.
According to science communicator and cosmetic chemist Jen Novakovich, the media attention this received created something of a pressure cooker, encouraging many of the subsequent sunscreen bans. As a result, sunscreen brands have been tweaking their formulations behind the scenes, getting rid of ingredients that are supposedly harmful to coral.
Even if you aren't headed to the aforementioned countries, it seems that more people want their sunscreen to be environmentally friendly ahead of beach holidays this summer. In the past week, 'reef safe sunscreen' has become a highly googled SPF query in the UK, while beauty websites like Cult Beauty and LookFantastic have dedicated entire landing pages to 'reef safe' and 'ocean-friendly' SPF products.
But is the label really something you should be concerned about when stocking up on sunscreen? And is the ban supported by the science?

What does 'reef safe' mean when it comes to sunscreen and SPF?

Jen explains that 'reef safe' isn't actually a regulated term. Much like 'clean' or 'hypoallergenic' it doesn't mean anything in the beauty industry. It's simply a marketing term used by brands which have ditched ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate from their sunscreen products.

Does sunscreen really harm coral reefs?

It's important to compare lab studies (which have concluded that certain sunscreen ingredients are harmful to coral) with what's actually taking place in the ocean. Jen cites a popular study. "Sunscreens can be demonstrated to bleach coral," she says, "but only when it's in extreme exposure lab settings – often a sealed bag with no water flow." This is problematic in itself, adds Jen, as the study is not representative of nature. "Most of the research available on sunscreens and their impact on coral reefs (including oxybenzone) shows that in nature, the evidence does not support the idea that sunscreens bleach coral," she explains. "The studies which suggest otherwise have been outliers."
So what is the natural evidence? Cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong points out in a blogpost that higher concentrations which could affect coral reefs have been located in a handful of places: "Secluded bays with hundreds of recreational swimmers in a small patch of water, like on popular beaches." That said, most studies which have looked into the concentrations have found lower numbers near coral reefs in nature, explains Jen. This is because of currents washing the sunscreen away and because the ocean is so vast and dilutes it.

What causes coral reef bleaching?

If sunscreen isn't the primary cause of coral bleaching, what is? Jen explains that overwhelming evidence shows that rising water temperatures are the biggest driver of coral bleaching. "Alas, sunscreen bans are easy," she says, "but addressing climate change? That's much harder."
Jen says it's easy for politicians to weaponise these outlier studies to convince their constituents that they're doing something to address this issue. "In reality, the bans will likely fix nothing. This misinformation makes things worse. It placates the public into thinking meaningful change is happening and that the bigger, more expensive and harder steps aren't needed."
Again, the onus is placed on individuals to make better choices for the environment, like purchasing 'reef safe' sunscreen. Really, though, a much bigger environmental issue is at play.

Is there any benefit to buying 'reef safe' sunscreen?

When it comes to the label alone, Jen thinks not. "Often 'reef safe' sunscreens contain an ingredient called zinc oxide," she explains. "Under the same exposure conditions used to demonstrate that chemical sunscreens bleach coral [e.g. in a lab], mineral sunscreens also bleach coral." Jen says it's important to note that in nature, however, neither bleaches coral.
Jen believes that buying into claims like 'reef safe' enables greenwashing. "Given how important addressing climate change is, this is really damaging," she warns.

What is the best sunscreen?

Respecting the rules of a country where certain sunscreen is banned isn't difficult as there are so many products available. Whether or not your chosen sunscreen reads 'reef safe', Jen hits home the importance of using a sunscreen which works for you. "There will have to be some give and take when it comes to environmental impact, especially for a product so important as sunscreen," she says. "The best sunscreen is the one you like, because you'll be more likely to regularly apply — and apply sufficient amounts of it."
Jen says that most people don't apply enough sunscreen to protect their skin from the sun. The recommended amount is half a teaspoon for your face and neck together. Use the same amount for each arm and apply a teaspoonful to each leg and the front and back of your torso.
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